Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Feminism (page 1 of 2)

The Trouble with Jack

Detail-of-Jack-the-Ripper-coverage-from-Illustrated-Police-News-1888

Detail of a contemporary illustration from the Illustrated Police News showing the face of Jack the Ripper as described by witnesses, 1888. Copyright British Newspaper Archive.

Jack the Ripper is a phantom, a bogeyman, a shadow in the night.  At the height of the terror the Illustrated Police News printed this picture, a mere artist’s impression based on the most recent witness statements. We know that someone committed those murders, that police suspected the deaths of five women, killed brutally in a three month window in the Whitechapel area, were killed by the same assailant. They assumed it was a man, they never caught him. “Jack the Ripper” flirted with the press for a while then faded away. He’s become one of our greatest bogeymen, the archetypal killer, a stock character in film, TV and books. There are countless theories about who he was, countless websites. For a man with no face he’s got a hell of a profile.

Then there were the victims. Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly. Very often they don’t even get a name check, they are simply victims one to five, just pieces of the puzzle that is Jack. Their dead faces are familiar, you can find them easily online (I’m not linking to them myself but if you want to find them go ahead).  They give nothing away in those grainy post mortem photographs. Death has brought them a kind of unity, a flat sameness similar perhaps to the way the hardness of their lives would have ground them down in life. These were working class women, whose poverty had dragged them into a precarious existence on the streets. As so many with no other choice they sold their bodies for pennies. These were the women the wealthy would pass by without a glance, unless they wanted to buy. These were the most vulnerable women, the kind that leave no mark on history apart from the odd arrest for soliciting or by meeting an extravagantly grotesque death. There are many like them who died nameless deaths. Take Mary Ann Nichols, whose sad, hopeless life was described by historian Fern Riddell on Twitter last year and in this Storify.

Even today the victim is all too often the missing piece of the puzzle. They existence during the trial of their killer is reduced to mere evidence, a collection of test tubes trying to confirm guilt. All too often the victim is a woman and the killer is a man. I’ve written about it so many times; the families outside the court describing the person they felt was missing from the proceedings. The families of Jean Gilbert and Celine Cawley both felt the need to go to the papers to give them a voice. They had the opportunity. How many women die in Ireland and elsewhere whose murder doesn’t cause headlines, doesn’t sell papers. Certainly in Whitechapel in the 1880s attacks on women were so commonplace that there has always been a debate about cases that could have been connected to the Ripper. As this timeline shows the 1880s were not a good time to be a vulnerable woman. And then, thirty years before, when William Kirwan killed his wife Maria, many of the papers didn’t even bother to get her name right. She often appears in the contemporary press as Louisa and these days she turns up as Sarah, Louisa or Maria or even sometimes Mary. It took a lot of digging to find Maria but you’ll hear her husband talked about on the boat over to Ireland’s Eye to this day.

That’s why the story of London’s Ripper Museum is in such appalling taste. The Evening Standard and several other London papers carried the news that a new museum opening on Cable Street in the East End will not be a celebration of East End women and the suffragette movement as the owners had suggested in their planning application but instead a museum dedicated to Jack the Ripper. At first they claimed that this was the way to humanise the victims but their Facebook page, as it stands this evening, makes no attempt to even pay lip service to anything but the public’s lust for a good murder “Jack the Ripper Museum, situated in a historic Victorian house in the heart of Whitechapel, tells the full story of the Jack the Ripper murders. Step back in time to the London of 1888, the greatest city in the world, where the greatest unsolved crimes of all time took place. As you explore the museum, you will discover everything there is to know about the lives of the victims, the main suspects in the murders, the police investigation and the daily life of those living in the east end of London in 1888. Once you have all the clues, will you be able to solve the mystery of Jack the Ripper?”

Now don’t get me wrong. I get why a Jack the Ripper museum would get visitors. I get why it’s a good commercial prospect. I made my living from the public appetite to murder. I’d be a hypocrite if I condemned it outright. But Dark Tourism needs to be respectful – and it certainly needs to be historically accurate. The frontage shown in the newspaper coverage looks more like a Disney Pirates exhibit and, as many of the angry local residents quoted in the Standard piece pointed out, Cable Street wasn’t the site of any Ripper murders. The area has it’s own proud history and that’s what should have been celebrated. What makes the story even worse, or at least adds a particular piquancy to it, is that the man behind the rather dodgy scheme, Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, was formerly Google’s head of diversity and inclusion…he told the Standard today “We did plan to do a museum about social history of women but as the project developed we decided a more interesting angle was from the perspective of the victims of Jack the Ripper.” Because obviously a brutalised life gruesomely cut short is so much more inspiring than say, for instance, Sylvia Pankhurst. Local paper The East London Advertiser says that the planning document submitted by the architects cited the closure of the much lamented Women’s Library in the area that “the “Museum of Women’s History”, as it calls the project, would be “the only dedicated resource in the East End to women’s history””.

A museum of women’s history would be a great thing. It would be somewhere to teach our children and to educate ourselves. A celebration of murder will not do that. No matter how much detail they give about the women who died. The focus is on the phantom in opera cloak and top hat clutching a doctor’s bag. A cliche who will will teach nothing, inform nothing, provide nothing but cheap thrills and feed base instincts. Judging by the story so far this is a ghoul hunting expedition not a celebration of the resilience of East End women. If they’d done what they said the press they would have got would have been over-whelmingly positive. They would have been championed across the planet as an example of how we are moving forward. Instead the social media carrion crows are circling looking for blood. I wonder if the owners think they’ve made a mistake.

In Search of Heroines

Last weekend I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the new Ingenious Ireland walking tour. A specially commissioned tour to mark International Women’s Day and the opening of the new Rosie Hackett bridge across the Liffey, Obstreperous Lassies tells the story of just some of the incredible women who came to prominence in the period between 1913 and 1916 here in Ireland.

Now being an unrepentant liberal lefty feminist type the mere idea of the tour was enough to make me smile. I can’t think of a better way to spend an hour or so on a sunny morning but traipsing around Dublin hearing about women who refused to sit down and shut up, who refused to do what was expected on them and who refused to accept the status quo. It was wonderful to hear about Maud Gonne as the woman who had championed free school meals rather than the aloof romantic figure who used to make W.B. Yeats dissolve into sighs every time she wafted past him. Or Ann Jellico, the Quaker mill owner’s daughter who decided that women needed skills to earn themselves a living and set up schools to teach them. Or Kathleen Lynn, often known as “the rebel doctor”, who helped to set up St Ultan’s clinic on Charleville Street and was instrumental in the introduction of the BCG vaccine. The tour is a wonderful catalogue of women judges and politicians, doctors and fighters, women who were suffragists and pacifists and who played their part in the formation of this country.

After the first hour of being pleasantly inspired though something else started to nag at me. While many of the names I was hearing were familiar, it was striking how many of the details weren’t. I was used to hearing the names as footnotes in the sacred history of the land, women who had stood bravely beside fighting men but were largely remembered as the helpmeets, there to tend the sick and take down a note of history as it passed. The honourable exception of course is Constance Markievicz, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish that I’ll get to in a moment. The point that kept coming home during the tour was that the stories of these women, who were all formidable, magnificent, inspiring examples of their sex, the kind of stories I used to latch onto with fangirl adoration as a teenager, much of that stuff was absolute news to me. It felt almost shockingly fresh to be looking at historical events from a woman’s perspective. It was only by focusing on that angle that you realise how unusual it is to hear.

As a child in the 70s and 80s I knew I was lucky to be born into a time when as a girl I no longer had to fight for my education. Growing up in a middle class area I was expected to go on to university, I was expected to have the freedom to follow whatever career path I chose. It never occurred to me that as a girl I was any less able than a boy. I knew women had already fought for the right to vote, the right to an education, the right  to own property and to not pass into the ownership of the man they married. I saw all of these as battles that had been won, as rights I now had. Like any child I couldn’t see limitations until they appeared right in front of me. Back then it never occurred to me that the world was anything but equal. I wasn’t short of role models. I saw strong women all around me, in my family, in popular culture and in the books I read. It wasn’t until much later that I began to see that the world was a far from equal place. That’s when you really need your heroines.

The one thing that I really remember about my stint doing the @ireland Twitter account last year was a conversation that took place on my last day. That week there had been a lot of media coverage of the suffragettes. It was the centenary of the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison and all the columnists were in a retrospective mood. At the end of a conversation about the various memorials to the suffragettes in the UK I had asked the 15,000 or so followers of the @ireland account to recommend similar Irish memorials to inspirational women down through the years. Several hours later we were still struggling to come up with anyone who wasn’t Constance Markievicz. And that’s my problem with the good countess. While she was undoubtedly a formidable force to be reckoned with and surely a fine role model for any trailblazing young Irish woman (or any other woman – or man for that matter – she really was a hell of a woman), it does appear that Constance has been venerated to the exclusion of almost all other women. When you look at the number of women who have been equally extraordinary and who have been all but wiped out of the history books it almost smacks of tokenism.

It’s taken until 2013 to have a bridge named after a woman. Calls to rename Merrion Square after Oscar Wilde’s extraordinary mother have fallen on deaf ears. Apart from Constance Markievicz there are very few memorials to prominent women in Dublin or anywhere else in Ireland. If you go by public monuments Ireland is a country that was built and maintained purely by men. That’s the thing that get’s me more than anything else with all of this – because Irish women are and have always been ballbreakingly strong. From the Celtic archetypes of the Morrigan or Queen Meabh, to the pirate queen Grace O’Malley who faced down Elizabeth 1, to any of the women who fought for Irish freedom right through to the indomitable Irish Mammy there’s no shortage of Irish heroines – many of whom were actually real people and aren’t simply mythological constructs.

In a world where inequality is rife, where violence against women is endemic, it might seem superficial to talk about statues and wallplaques but it’s all part of the same thing. Public statues are things we walk past on a daily basis, they are part of the fabric of our lives. We might ignore them most of the time but one day we’ll probably ask their story. Their mere existence tells us that there is a story to be told. Women’s history so often slips by, it’s harder find their stories because for so long they didn’t have a voice, they weren’t in a position to make a difference. So when they were we should celebrate them all the more. So to get the ball rolling I’d like to propose a statue Winifred Carney in the GPO.  She was there with James Connolly during the 1916 Rising, known as the typist with the Webley. I could see her as a little figure with a typewriter standing in the main hall on the edge of the crowds. They’d bump into her as they queued, especially at Christmas. People would stub their toe against her, apologise absently as they brushed past. They’d ignore her most of the time but every now and then someone would look to see who she was. It doesn’t have to be Winifred Carney, I just like the idea of the statue.

I’m fed up of feeling that jolt of surprise when I hear a woman hosting primetime radio, or when a walking tour for International Women’s Day feels like a novelty, or feeling that it’s something to be applauded when a bridge or a banknote bears a woman’s name or a woman’s face. This stuff shouldn’t matter. I’m fed up of feeling I should be happy that a woman is being represented regardless of whether I have a reason to applaud their achievement. This isn’t a big, earth shaking change though it’s a canary in a coalmine issue. When it’s no big deal if a woman is on the bank notes or even when there are complaints because all the bridges are named after women, or all the voices on prime time are female or all the banknotes have women on them then we’ll have actually got some kind of equality. At the moment that still feels like science fiction and it’s utterly wrong that it should feel that way.

Happy International Women’s Day.

Lovely Girls, 20 Years On…

You’re the state broadcaster of a small country. You’ve secured the first European interview with two of the recently released Russian punk feminist activists Pussy Riot. Do you arrange an interview with one of your most experienced interviewers, a woman possibly, known herself for her championing of women’s rights in Ireland? Do you plan a wide ranging issue that will cover the context of these courageous young women’s stand, their subsequent incarceration and their points about the Russia they’ve grown up in? Do you draw sensitive comparisons with tensions in Irish society to produce a hard hitting interview that will be shown as a stand alone broadcast with quotes trailed across news coverage and circulated to other news outlets both in Ireland and abroad to generate as much coverage of what is undoubtedly an important and notable coup for the station?

Or do you instead put the interview on a light entertainment show on a Saturday night, giving the host the brief to approach his guests with all the sensitivity of the famous Lovely Girls episode of Father Ted? The state broadcaster is RTE. The country is Ireland. The interview takes place on the Saturday Night Show. It’s the car crash you would expect – and you don’t have to take my word for it. Here it is.

I mean, where do you start with that? Host Brendan O’Connor stays true to Father Ted by repeatedly referring to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina as “girls”. O’Connor, fresh from the previous week’s Iona-gate, or should that be Panti-gate,  transcript here, feels the need to have an explanation of why he was caught kissing a bloke on the telly. He asks them whether they think Madonna is an activist like them. He tells Nadezhda and her husband Pytor Verzilov to stop having a “domestic” (although I would dearly love to know exactly what the two women were actually saying in Russian. I have a feeling Pytor was delivering some of the most tactful translation we’ve seen on Irish television in years. My respect for them all actually went up by a couple of notches when they lasted to the end of the interview, even if they made a pointed exit at the earliest opportunity.

I wish that this thing was a one off but sadly it’s not. The list of mind boggling clangers from the national broadcaster is far too long to go into here – those moments when you do a double take because you can’t believe you’ve just heard or seen what you have just heard or seen. The moments when you take to Facebook or Twitter because if you didn’t laugh you’d cry. The moments when you find yourself referencing Alan Partridge or Ricky Gervais, when you ruefully say “I hope this doesn’t go viral”. We’re used to it here. Ireland is a small country and sometimes the inevitable tinge of parochialism lends itself to rather jawdropping lapses of judgement.

The Irish tend to be a kind nation. You won’t get the character assassinations here that accompany a high profile slip elsewhere. It might be hard to  believe in the cut and thrust of the social networks but there’s still a very strong sense of the old adage, if you can’t say something nice, say nothing. But this one humane characteristic can also be one of the most dangerous. It can mean that the bar isn’t raised high enough because the constructive criticism wasn’t there. It can mean that complacency flourishes and egos go unchecked. At it’s worst it can lead to a blind eye being turned on a golden child.

We cringe at the Pussy Riot interview, as we should, but that’s not enough.  We should also be angry at a wasted opportunity. Pussy Riot protested against an oppressive, intertwined church and state. That’s something that should ring a few bells over here. We live in a country where the state broadcaster will buckle at the first hint of a threat from the Catholic right. We live in a country where there is no legislation governing fertility treatment, where we have abortion law for less than a month. We live in a country where men are routinely allowed to escape jail time for sex crimes if they have a large enough wallet – there’s even another one today. But we cringe and we let it go, until the next time. We vent on Twitter, maybe go on a march, but what ever really changes?

Nadezhda and Maria are obviously highly intelligent young women. I wouldn’t be surprised if they chose to accept an Irish pitch for their first European chat show interview because they were aware of at least some of the issues we have in Ireland. I wouldn’t be surprised if they felt a degree of kinship with feminists here. Perhaps they saw Ireland as a country that had come further than Russia but that knew how hard the road was to travel. What they found though was how little has changed. How few women have a voice on primetime broadcasts and how little the status quo has been rocked. The gaffs O’Connor made were those of a man who’s used to referring to his female friends and colleagues as “girls”, who would still make sexist jokes without really thinking about it, who hasn’t really put much thought into the whole sexual equality thing. To be fair, he may well think he’s a fully reconstructed new man who could easily navigate the interview. Someone really ought to tell him otherwise.

What is crushingly depressing about the Pussy Riot interview is the whole inevitability of it. It would have been more surprising to have seen them interviewed by someone like Miriam O’Callaghan in a serious, wide ranging interview that sat proudly in the Prime Time strand or out on its own. That’s what should have happened, but it was never going to. Over the years as a journalist I’ve worked with so many talented, intelligent women, many of whom have gone a long way. But when you step back and take a long look, it’s not enough. I was watching the last part of The Bridge last night and it struck me just how many strong female characters there were. But the really extraordinary thing was that this wasn’t a thing. It’s not a madly feminist series. These were just women. Some of them were cops, some of them were stay at home mothers, some were CEOs or scientists. It really wasn’t a thing. That’s equality. I don’t think we’re even ready to begin that discussion here yet.

Methinks They do Protest Too Much

I’ve been having a bit of a contentious time on Twitter lately. It can be like that sometimes and mostly lately I’ve been steering clear. I’m tired of having the same argument. It’s the argument that pops up with depressing regularity whenever someone raises the issue of violence against women. It usually comes when someone has said that this violence is a serious societal problem that we all need to do something about. Yesterday it came up because of this piece in the Irish Times. In it Una Mullally made the point that perhaps we shouldn’t be telling women not to get themselves raped and murdered, perhaps we should be telling men not to be harming women.

Well it didn’t take long for the howling and gnashing of teeth to begin. First they started in the comments below the article, then the row took to Twitter, as these things tend to do. One after another men came forward with their chests puffed out, declaiming that this was a gross generalisation. All men were not rapists and murderers. Sexism! Misandry! What about the Menz!

It’s about the third time this week something like this has kicked off. As I said, on Twitter things kick off which the regularity of an explosions in a fireworks factory made of sawdust. Take your eye off the ball for a moment and Whoosh! I’m tired of hearing the same arguments, receiving the same barrage of hectoring points from some bloke who wants to show me the error of my ways for believing in this divisive nonsense. I’ve had enough.

It’s getting increasingly hard to avoid that hectoring response. If ,as a woman, you identify yourself online as a feminist or are definite in your views there will be invariably be someone waiting in the wings who wants to tell you how wrong you are. While I’m all in favour of freedom of speech and while I’ve no problem with lively debate I am sick and tired of trying to make my point to someone who is only interested in getting the last word. This is why I usually lurk Twitter late at night talking about 70s TV. The discussions can get heated there as well but no one tries to shout you down.

There’s a particular type of arguing here that really sets my teeth on edge. It’s not restricted to gender politics either, I’ve encountered the same response when talking about other types of discrimination. The attitude that will invariably be shouted loudest is the one telling me to shut up, telling me that I’m exaggerating the problem, telling me I’ve got it wrong.

Normally I try to calmly reason with them. I try to make them see my point and to demonstrate that their argument is built on a principal of denial. I’m all right Jack. But we come back to the beginning again and again and I really don’t think anyone learns anything.

No if you’re reading this and your fingers are already itching to jump in there to tell me I’m generalising wildly, all men are not like that and I’m just another one of those ranty feminists, let me stop you right here. Chances are we’re not going to agree. Here’s why.

We all look at the world through the lens of our experience. If you go through life and don’t see any of the sharp edges then well done, congratulations, you are charmed. But I’ll tell you now, we’re not looking at the same world. The very glass that makes up the lenses through which we see is fused from different elements. I can’t not see the corners. But I can point them out.

Firstly let’s start with the very, very basics. I’m not a feminist because I hate men. I’m not a feminist because I just want to be argumentative. I’m a feminist because when I look at the world we live in today and see women like me denied education, denied freedom, denied a voice, it makes me very, very angry. Sure, as a white, middle class woman living in Western Europe I’ve got it easy. I come from a culture where I can choose the man I marry, where I can continue my education and where I can vote for a say in how my country is run. I am not forced to sell my body and by and large I’m not marginalised. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see how much easier it is for men to get on in this fine country of ours.

When I worked in radio I often heard that my female voice was just going to irritate listeners. On Irish radio in general two thirds of the voices you will hear belong to men. Women, who lets not forget make up around 50% of the global population, make up only 13% of our elected representative. As a writer I know that my work is likely to be under reviewed and that my book will be more likely to get a softly feminine cover regardless of it’s subject matter because of my gender. I know that while education was never an issue for me it’s not that long since a third level degree was an impossible dream for women. I worked in the criminal courts for over six years and when you’re there on a daily basis you realise that the majority of crimes that pass through the Central Criminal Court are crimes against women. So many sex crimes pass through the courts in Dublin that the papers cover only a fraction. Those crimes, I’m sad to say, tend to be picked for their sensationalism, a pretty victim, a particularly brutal accused. I’ve written about so many of them on this blog. Click on any of the women’s names in the tag cloud and chances are you will find a woman killed by the man who was supposed to love her.

And when I get angry about all this, when I say this is ridiculous and must stop if we are ever going to move forward as a people there will always be those who tell me I am wrong. They will be men. I’ve never had this reaction from a woman.

The problem is that it’s all getting worse. When I was a child in the 70s it was fashionable to give little girls tool sets and little boys dolls. Granted this might have been a vogue in our own leafy suburb but back then I never questioned it. I used to laugh at the boys I played with when they told me I couldn’t play Scalectrix or Meccano because I was a girl. It never for a moment occured to me they had a point. That would be utterly bonkers. No if you go to a toy shop you can tell the aisle that’s meant for girls. While the boys are presented with a kaleidoscope of colours the girls have one option. Pink. Let me get this straight. All little girls do not want to be princesses. I always wanted to be the Prince. He got a horse and a sword and got to do stuff. All the Princess did was lounge around and look pretty.

I could go on and on and on with the examples of how this world is still trying to tell women to stay in the background, to shut up, to look pretty. It might seem like I’m off the point here but it’s all part of the same thing. Good girls are still pretty and mute and passive. Good girls need to be protected. Good girls need to be told when they have worried their pretty little heads about something unnecessary.

Because that’s the crux of it. These men who bristle when a point is made, who are so secure in the fact that they are nice men so we shouldn’t be telling them not to rape, who think that we just misunderstand or didn’t do our research, these men need to stop and listen. It doesn’t matter that you are a nice guy and would never harm a woman. That doesn’t mean that others of your sex would. For time immemorial, women have been told to beware, to watch out for the big bad wolf. We’ve been told to watch what we wear, watch how we speak, watch where we look. We are have the population of the planet but we hold a fraction of the power. It’s not an equal playing field. If your fingers are still itching to butt in just ask yourself why? Is it because you are so unsure of your own position that you can’t see the difference between yourself and the bad men? Is it because you started getting irritated by my words because they were written by a woman who really shouldn’t be this forthright? Is it because you need to look at your own attitudes before getting at mine?

I’ve been fighting my corner for a very long time. I’ll continue to do so for as long as it takes. I do not believe that I am any less capable, any less wise, any less worthy of respect because I was born a particular sex. But most of all I don’t see why as a woman I should have to take all the responsibility. Culturally we persist in assuming that men are at the mercy of animal urges. Surely it’s time they shared a little bit of responsibility and showed a bit of respect and a bit of empathy? I’m also confident that any of the lovely blokes that I’ve met, known and loved over the years will read this and not feel victimised. Because those men know that there is a problem and it’s one that we all need to do something about. I can rant until I’m blue in the face but even if every woman on the planet agreed with me we’d only be 50% and an underrepresented 50% at that. We all need to decide that this crap is unacceptable. We need to stop arguing about the bloody details.

Slut Shaming and a Twisted Morality

Twitter can often be rather in your face. There are often views on there that you’d rather not engage with. That’s the nature of the place, when you have a forum for anyone and everyone to speak their mind, often under the convenient cloak of anonymity, sometimes you come up against assholes. But this morning Twitter outdid itself. Of course it’s not the first time a young, vulnerable woman has been pilloried on social media and it sure as hell won’t be the last but for me personally it’s a step too far and I’m left wondering if it is finally the last straw.

I’m talking of course about the world-wide trending #slanegirl tag. For once, I’m not going to link. The pictures that started all of this are all over the hashtag and I won’t be part of sharing them. If you’re not on Twitter and even more, if you’re not Irish let me take a moment to explain. Over the weekend, Eminem played Slane Castle in County Meath. The castle’s been used as a concert venue for years and Eminem is only one of many huge names to play there. In the lead up to the concert there were all kinds of warnings to concert goers about alcohol and safety. There’ve been problems with behaviour at some outdoor concerts in the past couple of years so the gardai were on edge.

This morning pictures surfaced of a young girl performing oral sex on a guy who appears to be giving a celebratory gesture at his good fortune to a number of other young men looking on. The girl looks very young and she’s noticeably the only female figure in a rather crowded scene. The pictures were trending worldwide well before lunchtime and the jokes were running fast and free. In fairness a lot of the tweets under the slanegirl tag were condemning the jokes and offering sympathy to the girl but that wasn’t the overwhelming tone of the tag by any means.

As I said, it’s not the first time this kind of thing has happened. Social media is rife with misogyny and I’m not going to detail all the instances here. If you’re a digital native or even enthusiastic adopter you’ll be well familiar with what I’m talking about and if you’re not,well, you’re probably not going to thank me for enlightening you. Let’s just say there’s a lot of it and it’s a depressing sign that sexual equality is still a very long way off. It’s frustrating when you’ve always been told the sky’s the limit. Walking down the aisles of girl’s toys in any toy shop and you’ll be forgiven for thinking the only way a girl can reach for the stars these days is as a (pink) fairy. It could be simply that the equality was never really there but for a few brief decades we were told otherwise and we can really see the bars now.

What’s noticeable in the slanegirl frenzy is that the initial focus was all on the girl. The eager jokers who merrily shared the picture over breakfast were happy to finger point at the slight figure on her knees in the mud. Very few condemned the skinny, crowing guy with his jeans around his ankles, despite the fact he was making an equal show of himself. Human beings will always make a show of themselves at some point. Our judgement doesn’t always work out and what might have seemed like a good idea at the time can quickly become a mortifying memory you’ll remember for years. It was one thing before the advent of social media when you only had to worry about witnesses on the ground. If you’d really done something dumb then you might feel the urge to find a new social set or if the worst came to the worst, move, but now social networking means that your stupidity can be broadcast to a global audience in seconds. There’s no shadows to hide in, there’s no hope that memories will fade because even when the hungry mob have moved onto a new victim the evidence will be preserved in the aspic of the cached world. We all live in a goldfish bowl now. There’s no knowing when your actions will be caught by a random camera phone.

My heart bleeds for today’s teens who have to negotiate the adolescent minefield with an ever present danger of appearing on a future youtube clip show. The world we live in now seems to be a harsher place than the one I grew up in, though maybe that’s just a product of growing up and seeing more clearly how things work. I look back on my own days of hedonism, at my own mistakes, but there really does seem to be a difference. Mind you I was always happier in jeans (though I’ve worn my share of short skirts). I’ve often sat on the bus into town of an evening and fought the urge to hand some young one sitting across from me, all bare white legs and strappy sandals even on the harshest January night, something to cover her up. I’m well aware of the fact that even writing that down makes me sound like an old fart and I can imagine the reaction if I ever said anything but a few hours later, seeing them upended in the gutter, mascara running down the cheeks and hair tangled and those pale legs scuffed and bloodied I feel afraid for them. I’d feel a lot happier if the guys with them wore as little. Why no fashion for leather hot pants for men? No, the guys will all be wearing jeans with a shirt or t-shirt. Their collapse at the end of the night is just as frequent but a lot less anatomical.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that these young women should cover up for any prudish reason. Fashion is fashion and I completely understand them wanting to show off that supple, rounded slimness that you don’t really miss until it’s gone. But it seems to me that some of these fashions are more to do with satisfying a porn-obsessed male gaze rather than any feminine confidence boosting. The thing is that at that point in your life, when you’re young free and single and consequences don’t exist until they land on you with a crash, there will always be sex. Sometimes it’ll be life affirming, mind blowing, confidence sky rocketing sex. Sometimes it’ll be awkward, painful, pit-of-the-stomach-embarrassing, never-should-have-happened sex. And that’s staying within the legal, broadly-safe boundaries of normal human interaction. Social networking has twisted some of that interaction, giving it a spiteful edge that can destroy lives and stunt these ordinary explorations. It’s ridiculous that at this stage in the game the onus is still on the woman to behave a certain way. Men and boys should take responsibility for their actions just as much as girls and women are expected to and it’s so depressing that this still needs to be said.

I’ve been thinking about taking a holiday from social networking a lot lately. I’ve had enough of the mob mentality and the constant outrage. I’ve limited space for either at the moment and five minutes on Twitter can fill that space for a week. We live in a brave new world and I know I’m not going to be able to escape social networking for ever but just now I need to tune out the incessant roar for a bit. While this isn’t the post to discuss that it’s worth noting simply because poor little slanegirl has made up my mind. I hope this experience doesn’t break her but she’s going to learn some of life’s sharper edges in the next while. Those who share the pictures and who think her predicament is amusing should look to their own life and hope the same never happens to them. The lack of compassion online is worrying and scary and I don’t want to look at it any more. I know it’s still going to be there whenever I come back but right now I just can’t do it. I’m leaving the party for a while.

On Fishes and Bicycles and Other Hard Concepts

When I was very small I was taught that it was important to know right from wrong. I was told that I was a lucky girl who got to live in a civilised country, in a comfortable house, who got to go to a good school and who didn’t know anything about war or famine other than what the pictures on the little cardboard money boxes I brought home from school showed. I was taught that because I was a lucky girl in all these ways I understood there were those who weren’t as fortunate and who didn’t have what I had. It was important I stood up for what was right, what was fair.

It was a fairly standard liberal middle class indoctrination. But it stuck. Even now the one thing that reduces me to red-faced, fist-clenched, speechless rage is unfairness. I’m not talking sulky, pouty, “but I want it” unfairness here, by the way. Oh no. This is the kind of jaw-dropping, gob-smacking, bone-crunching unfairness that’s like a slap in the face with the sharp edge of a damp smelly towel. It doesn’t compute. It can’t, it’s wrong, spelled out in capital letters that are probably red and flashing.

When I was about five and the world was a far simpler, softer place that fundamental instability was locked in a milk carton. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t open the side of the carton myself to get at the last drops and instead had to wait with my arm raised, the puddle of milk in the corner of the carton getting warmer and sharper by the second. I couldn’t understand why I got into trouble when I opened it myself and showed my friends how to open theirs. It didn’t compute. It just wasn’t right.

When I was a little older I learnt there were bigger things that weren’t fair too. I remember well the burning cheeks and stinging eyes at being denied Scalectrix or Meccano because I was a girl. I’ve felt them often. Once that stuff starts happening it doesn’t stop. You can’t get lost in a knot of rage every time it happens though. You grow up. You learn to stand your ground.

But this isn’t a trip down memory lane. I’m trying to make a point.  I wouldn’t consider myself madly political but I do believe that I have no right to judge my fellow human beings, that empathy and compassion are evolutionary traits and that everyone deserves dignity and freedom. Every so often, when I’m blunt about the things that matter to me, when I tweet about racism or blog about abortion or atheism, someone will tell me I’m brave for speaking out. What I’m trying to explain is that bravery has absolutely nothing to do with it. I was raised with a particular moral framework, a “sense of fair play”. Why wouldn’t you stand up for that?

Of course, I’m well aware that there will be some reading this who don’t think what I’m saying is reasonable or obvious in the slightest. They will have got as far as the title of this piece and dismissed me as a mouthy feminist, a dissolute member of the liberal meeja, a purveyor of happy clappy bullshit. It’s because of this dismissal of values that I consider fundamental and absolutely bleeding obvious that I have, in the past hesitated about tackling a range of subjects head on – and that’s at the heart of the problem.

In tackling these subjects I’m aware that perhaps I may be painting myself in a less than favourable light. It’s been suggested to me more than once that by being honest about my liberal opinions I could offend people, even jeopardise my career prospects. In my head there’s still a treacherous little voice warning me I could come across as “strident” and no boy will ever want me (well, perhaps not quite). Yup, it’s still there. I live in a Western European country, I’m middle-class, educated. As a woman I’ve benefitted from the ground gained by former generations, by the hard won right to a third level, even second level education, to vote, to have autonomy.  Looking back over my family tree I can watch as they joined the middle classes and benefitted from greater opportunities and wider choices. Over the past century or so the world has changed beyond recognition because people saw that progress lay in these fundamental rights. The right to work for a fair wage, in decent conditions. The right to an education. The right to own property.

These changes have given us the world we live in today. They’ve benefitted the right as much as the left (although the former land owning men who once held all the power must be feeling a wee bit hard done by). Many of the social and religious conservatives seeking to shape the world we live in today wouldn’t have a voice if it wasn’t for these waves of progress. So why does it so often feel that we haven’t moved forward at all?

Last night during the late night sitting over the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill Fine Gael TD Tom Barry pulled his colleague Áine Collins TD onto his lap. He’s since apologised but it’s a stark reminder of why that treacherous little voice is still telling me to be quiet. Mr Barry has since apologised and the whole thing is being brushed away and that again is the problem. I know that if a male friend did the same in the pub I’d take exception. I also know that if I did so at least some of the company would tell me not to over react. I know this because over the years this kind of stuff has happened many, many times. I know it’s wrong but in the past I’ve laughed it off myself to play the game.

As I’ve grown older I’ve seen it so many times. I’m out of patience. I fail to see why speaking up should make me mouthy, or militant, or strident. I could be fairly sure that Mr Tom Barry TD would not have grabbed one of his male colleagues and wrestled with him on the benches of the Dáil Chamber. That kind of horse play just wouldn’t have been proper in such solemn circumstances. The fact that he and his colleagues think this is a minor, if insulting, lapse in judgement says it all. It’s not right, it’s not fair and it shouldn’t be an issue to say so.

This isn’t a call to arms, or an incitement to anything. I’m really not that dogmatic. But it’s always important to stick up for what’s right. That will never change.

Thoughts on Being a Country for a Week…

Backyard Battles by Michael Stamp metaphor for @ireland

Photograph by Michael Stamp. All rights reserved.

Over one week at the end of May I got the opportunity to discover what it’s like to be a country, nominally at least. The @ireland Twitter account was set up by WorldIrish.com in March last year. It’s modelled on the @sweden account which has a different Swedish person curating the account each week, sharing their lives and their views to give a kaleidoscopic view of the people and ideas that go to make up a country.  There are quite a few of these accounts now. Towns and cities all over the world have cottoned onto the fact that this format plays very well with public and commentators alike. It’s a low cost way to get the word out there about how cosmopolitan a place you are, how gorgeous the scenery is and how achingly cool your people are and lets face it, stuff like this is what Twitter was made for.

When my turn came up, to be honest, the gloss had gone off Twitter a little. I joined around the same time I set up this blog, and set up my Facebook page, back when my first book needed selling. I stayed when I stopped seeing it as a pressurised shop floor and simply as very, very large room full of people talking, rather like a massive party with no beginning and no end. After a while I realised that scattered through the crowds were the kind of people you end up having very interesting conversations with in the kitchen at a party like that. Like the song says, you really will always find me in the kitchen at parties. Lately though I’ve started looking around for my coat. I’ve already swapped phone numbers with the people I was talking to in the kitchen and a bus load of noisy new people have arrived just as the beer’s running low. Or something. Party analogies aside, it’s been a long time since I’ve been my normal, chatty, opinionated self on Twitter. Until I got to be a country.

I started bright and early on the Monday morning. I think the first thing I talked about was actually the weather. Within minutes I realised the difference between tweeting to a couple of thousand followers and tweeting to over 15 thousand.

There’s a lot more people.

I use Twitter mainly through my phone and it wasn’t long before the bloody thing was chirruping and vibrating as if it was trying to hatch. Conversations rattled by at breakneck speed and I soon realised that with this audience you couldn’t get away with casual throw away comments. People actually wanted to know what you had to say, then often contradict it. On my second morning I glibly mentioned that it was a grey day in Dublin and within seconds had half a dozen replies telling me they were looking at the sun right now.

I’ve been doing this author thing for almost five years now. I’ve done live appearances – those wonderful events when you look out into the audience and realise you’ve got the phone numbers of half the people there in your phone contacts and the other half have come to see the other people on the panel.  Having that many people actually looking straight at you and waiting to see what you do next (even if they are online) is a bit of a culture shock!

I knew when I started my week that I didn’t want to pull my punches. I’ve grown more political as I’ve got older and less inclined to keep my opinions to myself. I’m frustrated on a daily basis by the conservatism in this little country and I didn’t want to shy away from that if it came up. To be fair I didn’t always wait to see if it came up. Equality matters to me and there’s far too much stuff in the news at the moment not to come back to the subject again and again.

So we ended up talking about religion, or rather my lack of it, feminism (no surprise there), racism, abortion and spirituality. The two subjects that kept coming back were the way society views women and the way Irish society can sometimes be a little less than the land of a thousand welcomes if you’re different. With both these subjects the thing that really hit home was the number of responses I got from people telling me it wasn’t a problem. I’m a reasonable woman. I’d much rather spend my time talking about books or old films and TV. It these things weren’t a problem, believe me, I wouldn’t keep banging on about them. As a woman in today’s society I think there’s still a long way to go before we gain a real, lasting form of equality. Too many women are treated purely as sexual objects or worse, lesser human beings, across the world not to be worried and angry about the fact that this persists even though, as a species we should surely have copped on by now.

It’s the same with the racism issue. When I started tweeting about the subject under the @ireland account it was in response to the racial attack on journalist Una Kavanagh. Una works of WorldIrish.com and manages the @ireland account so naturally I shared her initial tweets and commented. While the bulk of the response was the generous, warm, outraged response I’d expect from the Ireland I know and love there were a significant number of people who took exception with me tweeting about the incident from the account, since “Ireland doesn’t have a problem with racism”. This is a myth I’ve heard many times over the years and yet when I spoke to my non Irish friends during the week, everyone had their own story. A problem doesn’t have to be all engulfing to be a problem. It just has to be persistent and widespread, and like it or not racism is a form of bigotry that’s persistent and widespread in this country. When someone’s attacking you because of the colour of your skin or your accent you don’t stop to reassure yourself that this person is the exception. You might think that later but not immediately. Coming out of this conversation I found myself sharing my own experiences of xenophobia in Ireland for the first time online. A fair few people responded with similar stories, enough that it really brought home to me how important it is that this issue is talked about as often as possible. It needs to be stamped out, not ignored.

As important as it might have been to talk about racism the conversation I think I enjoyed most was on the Sunday, my last day. I’d been watching a documentary about Emily Wilding Davison to mark the centenary of her death after falling under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby. I asked where were the monuments to the many extraordinary Irish women who’ve inspired over the years? Where were the heroine’s for young Irish feminists. Throwing that out there started a stream of suggestions. The conversation rumbled on for much of the day, throwing up many very inspiration names and stories. What did become clear though was that, in terms of public memorials, either statues or plaques, women are vastly under represented here. By the end of the day it was difficult not to see Constance Markievicz as almost an example of tokenism, being celebrated almost to the exclusion of all others. It was notable how hard everyone was racking their brains and how few names it was throwing up. It was a fact remarked upon by several Tweeters that the majority of women who appear in statues around Ireland are fictitious or mythological. This is something else that I’ve taken away. We need to do something to change that status quo, these things send powerful messages.

Of course it wasn’t all contentious. I talked to a lot of people about Sci-Fi – and even tweeted about my beloved dystopias, although I didn’t get to be a geeky as I’d like. I also had a great chat about nail polish, which involved my first ever picture of a manicure. I’ll be doing “selfies” next! I also got to be severely nerdy about the Four Courts and criminal Dublin. Right down my alley.

What I can take away from the week is a renewed appreciation of Twitter. I hadn’t realised how unique one of these country accounts is. At the risk of coming over all philosophical, they put you in an unusual position. You deal with the expectations of the world about a country that’s an expert at mythologizing itself. You deal with the nostalgia and protective homesickness of the Diaspora who are watching for a taste from home. You deal with the manic salesmanship of some of the country and the sharp-tongued cynicism  of the rest. It’s an intense experience. A previous @ireland tweeter described it to me as like being plugged into the Matrix. I know exactly what he means. It can feel quite profound, if it’s late enough and you’re tired enough and it’s been a very long day. It’s addictive and it’s illuminating. Talking about racism, which eventually developed into a conversation about national identity, I thought about my own national identity. I’ve known for a long time that that while I can’t ignore my Englishness, I’ll always be a Londoner, I’m as Irish as they come now too. I can’t remember the point where I stopped feeling like a visitor. My nationality was remarked on to such an extent it was constantly underling the fact I didn’t belong. But at some point I accepted my place here. I don’t know if I’ll stay for ever, I don’t know if I’ll ever stop giving out about all the things that make me hop up onto my soap box, but I know that Ireland is in my heart and I’ve now got two homes rather than none, as I might have thought a long time ago.

Quite a few people asked me was I mad, when I told them I was going to curate the @ireland account. They worried it would be too intrusive, that I’d be too exposed and yes, I see that. You learn very quickly with an account like that you can’t steer every conversation and they will take you where they will – which can be a little disquieting at times.  But here on the other side, it was an extraordinary experience and one that I count myself lucky to have had. It’s renewed my affection for Twitter and once again confirmed a lot of the things I love about this country. I’ve met a lot of very interesting people, many of whom have stuck around to continue those kitchen party chats. If I needed reminding that this social interaction 2.0 works better with total immersion I’ve got it now. You’ll be hearing a lot more from me. I’m glad to be back in my own little universe but I enjoyed the holiday and I’ve come back refreshed. If you’re curious to see exactly what happened you can see the tweets on my profile page on WorldIrish.com here.

In Praise of Women

 

Photo property of Abigail Rieley all rights reserved

When I was a child I never doubted I could fly. I never saw any reason why I couldn’t rule the world one day. I could be a doctor, or a spaceman, or a time traveller. I could be a famous artist or an explorer or have my very own book shop. I never saw being a girl as a help or a hindrance, it was just the thing that occasionally meant I had to wear rather uncomfortable woollen tights. When I was a child I was surrounded by women, women who showed me a world that was waiting to be discovered, women who were the best role models I could ever ask for, women who made me the woman I am today.

After my dad died it was just me and my mum. Despite her own loss my mum was the heart of my childhood. It was she who taught me to love books and music  and who, when she discovered the contraband lipgloss and black eyeliner hidden in my schoolbag, sat me down with a drawer full of makeup with names like Biba and Miners and taught me how to apply it like a pro. My mum was the one who, when I was in the school production of Hiawatha she stayed up all night stitching together scraps of leather to make a costume on a budget. My mum taught me how to make an entrance. She taught me how to be strong in a crisis. She taught me how to create magic out of nothing. I knew she wasn’t happy when I was a child but I knew that she would always be there when I needed her.

My mum was strong but I don’t think she could have coped without the friends and family who surrounded us in those early years. I remember Alison, who’s lifting me up in the picture that accompanies this piece, who came to help after my father’s death and stayed for my early years. Alison was one of the first people I talked to about writing and was the person who told me, after I joined Mensa to vanquish an ex boyfriend’s taunts, that I didn’t have to prove myself in the face of other people’s insecurity.

There was Dee, my mum’s cousin, who was always her rock. Dee was a second mother. I remember having my tea at her house while a malevolent tortoiseshell cat eyed me from the top of a cupboard. Dee taught me not to be afraid. She taught me to face things head on and not to be afraid of speaking up. Her house was always full of life and noise, so different from our solitary quiet. She brought calm practicality into our sometimes chaotic existence and a normality that couldn’t be washed away by moments of panic.

There was Branny, my mum’s best friend, who told me,when I needed to hear it, that my mum was human. Sitting up the night before my audition for the drama school I didn’t really want to go to we sipped tea laced with left over Christmas brandy and I laughed myself some perspective over stories of my mum’s less edifying exploits. Branny confirmed that my mum and I were very different people and much as I loved her I would never be her. Drama school was the dream she had attained. My dreams were somewhere else.

There was Anna my godmother. An actress and broadcaster, she would fly in from visiting  the flat she kept in Paris with fresh-baked croissants and lie in our garden soaking up the paler English rays of sun to top up her French tan. Anna was always impossibly glamorous but still ours. I grew up wanting to have a flat in Paris, to work for the BBC. I grew up wanting her independence and freedom.

When I was about eight my Gran came to live with us. Like her daughter, my grandmother could be an impossible woman but she had the trait that a great many women seem to have in my family – bloody mindedness. When my Gran broke her back in her 60s the doctors told her she would never walk again. She proved them wrong. She would never break any speed records but when she lived with us a year or two later, if the bus was late she would walk home. My Gran told me stories about her life. How she had run a record shop and a hair salon. How she had been offered a scholarship to the Slade school of Art on the recommendation of her art teacher Archibald Knox. My Gran still said her Us the old fashioned way with a hidden i and taught me phrases like “too, too bay window” and “all fur coat and no knickers” – goodness knows what kind of conversations we were having!

Then there was my aunt, my wonderful extraordinary aunt Jill. Jill has always been there for people. She’s been a teacher, a social worker, a missionary and a vicar. My earliest memories of Jill are of her warmth and her quick affection. I’ve always been a little in awe of her but Jill was particularly amazing when my mum died. She made family seem immediate again instead of distant.

These are just a handful of the women who shaped me into the  woman I am today. There are many, many more.  I count myself fortunate to have been surrounded most of my life by a multitude of wise, funny, generous, warm, wonderful women who have enriched my life and given it colour. In previous years I’ve marked International Women’s Day by writing about how much further there is to go. I’ve talked about violence against women, about the pitiful sentences for rapes, but this year I want to celebrate. I want to raise a glass to extraordinary women in my life, in yours, everywhere.

As I sit at my computer and type this post I’m looking into the faces of three more extraordinary women, subjects of my current book. I’ve been privileged to look into their lives, lived so long ago, and get to know their strength. I wouldn’t have found them, might not have listened, if I hadn’t been taught to look.  I stand here at this point in my life because of all the women who’ve known and shaped me. Thank you ladies! Here’s to you!

A Point that Really Shouldn’t Need to be Made

Late yesterday afternoon, at around the time thoughts were turning towards what to have for dinner, my phone rang. It was a wonderfully geeky friend who knows of my own (not so closet) geeky tendencies. Had we talked about Much Ado About Nothing she asked excitedly.

“Um no, not recently.”

I knew that Much Ado About Nothing was one of the most hotly anticipated screenings at this year’s Jameson Dublin Film Festival. In attendance would be the director of this new production, none other but Joss Whedon. I knew about the screening all right. I also knew it was sold out.

But my wonderful friend had a tip. A small number of tickets were being released in the final hours before the screening. Would I like to go with her.

“Hell yes!”

So at 6 o’ clock yesterday four of us, all women, excitedly met outside the Savoy Cinema. We weren’t the only women there. Why would we be? This is the man responsible for Buffy the vampire slayer, for the formidable Zoe Washburne in Firefly, I could go off into a long list of amazing female characters but I’m trying to keep the fangirlness to an absolute minimum. Let’s just agree that Joss Whedon is known for his strong female characters. It’s a fact so mind bogglingly obvious it really doesn’t need saying. You would think. There were a lot of women at last night’s screening, a substantial percentage of the enthusiastic crowd.

After last night’s screening there was a Q&A conducted by John Maguire of the Sunday Business Post. Eventually questions were thrown open to the floor. You can imagine the number of hands went up for those microphones. The first question went to a guy in the first row. What it was is unimportant. The second went to a guy in the row behind him. Then another bloke, and another. Eventually Joss Whedon had to point out that there were women in the room. Wasn’t it time to let one answer a question?

The next question went to another man. Much to the annoyance of the woman sitting next to him who had also had her hand up.

Now I’m not saying that the guys who got the mic didn’t have a right to ask their question. Everyone in that audience was there for the same reason. Tickets sold out so quickly because Mr Whedon has a hell of a lot of fans of both sexes.

But he is known for his strong female characters.

Afterwards in the crowd outside the cinema people were smiley and happy and chatty. Our little group of four got talking to other audience members. All of them women. Nothing surprising in that. It was just the way it worked out. But we all commented on the fact that so few women had got to answer questions.

Of the two women who did get to ask one of them identified herself as a theatre director and producer. She wanted to adapt the famous musical episode of Buffy for the stage she explained. She had written a letter. To the audience’s, and I’m sure her, delight, Whedon crossed to her seat and took the letter from her, tucking it in his jacket pocket.

That took balls, everyone outside was saying. How appropriate.

That failure to give the mic to the women in the audience was the only gripe in an otherwise great evening. I don’t think it was done maliciously, probably not even intentionally, but it was done and it was noticed and it was remarked upon by the guest of honour himself.

The truly depressing thing about the fact that it wasn’t malicious and it was probably wasn’t intentional is that that this kind of stuff happens all the time. It happens with such mind numbing regularity I frequently want to scream. It’s like the time in college when a big journalistic name came to speak to our class. There was a lively discussion that went right up to the end of the day. Afterwards this big journalistic name, who was an old friend of our lecturer, agreed to go for a pint. Invitations were carelessly given but somehow the only people who got them were they lads in the class. Once again it wasn’t intentional, once again I found myself outside with the women noticing the omission.

It’s like fact that you can turn on Irish radio station between breakfast at dinner time and only hear a male host. The fantastic advocacy group Women on Air was set up to combat this. Despite a long list of qualified female contributors out there, Irish journalists (and those elsewhere, this isn’t solely an Irish problem by a long chalk) will go for the same old male reliable. I could go on giving examples forever. I’m sure you could add them yourself.

It’s frustrating as a women to feel even now, in Western Europe in the 21st Century, that you don’t have the same voice as the other half of the population. Even though my generation of women are the first who can look on our freedom as a birthright there is so much still to do. The fact that this freedom, this equality, is so easily forgotten shows just how fragile it is. The worst thing is that sometimes the offenders really should know better. Members of the so called “liberal meeja” really should know better.

When you’re interviewing someone who is known particularly for writing strong female characters then the issue should surely be at the front of your mind.

I’ll leave the final word to Joss Whedon himself. My miraculous ticket fairy also pointed me towards this clip of him accepting an award from the Equality Now movement. Says it all really.

A Womb with a View

 

L'Origine du Monde

Viewing L’Origine du Monde by Gustave Courbet at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris

Last week the Telegraph printed a piece by novelist Amanda Craig pondering whether a woman’s ability to produce offspring was, in fact, the font of perfect understanding of the human condition. The fact that the hook used to sell this rather daft premise was the childlessness of recently deceased author Maeve Binchy took the thing to rather spectacular levels of tactlessness but the argument itself is one that makes me want to bang my head off the keyboard. While I’m not for one moment suggesting that Amanda Craig is representative of all maternal thinking, her argument is one that’s depressingly familiar, and as a woman who’s hit 40 without child-shaped appendages it’s one I’ve heard in various incarnation way too often and every time I hear it it seriously pisses me off.

It’s a big subject but the first and foremost thing is that, as a writer, I don’t see myself particularly as male or female. The writer is a puppet master, inhabiting the head of every character. It doesn’t matter if they’re barren or fertile, male or female, sweet or rotten to the core. It’s my job to understand each one of them, what makes them tick, why they do what they do. Walking in their  shoes, seeing through their eyes is in the job description. Some of the characters will have jobs I’ve done, go to places I’ve been, feel emotions I’ve felt, but everything else is extrapolation. I try to have experienced as much of my characters’ lives as possible but there’s a limit. I’ll never be a man. I’ll never kill someone (I presume). I can think of dozens of things my characters will do that I simply won’t be able to. But that doesn’t mean I won’t know how they feel when they do those things. If I can’t imagine it, then I’ll find someone who’s done it. That’s my job.

It’s the same job for a male writer. The Telegraph piece is only concerned with the female authors who haven’t given birth. The vast body of literature produced by the opposite sex, none of whom have managed to personally drop a sprog, is completely ignored. The piece is written with the assumption that the words written by women exist in a hermetically sealed bubble. That there are men’s books and women’s books and never the ‘twain shall meet. It’s assumed that the fairer sex need their own playing field, that our minds need the same sporting considerations as our bodies. I’ve never fully understood why there always need to be men’s and women’s versions of every sporting event anyway but I’m damn sure that such precautions aren’t necessary when it comes to the intellect. It reminds me of an old theatre anecdote about the old stage actor confronted with a young co-star who favours method acting. The youngster ties himself in knots fully understanding his characters motivation while the old stalwart insists that the only thing necessary is to know your lines and try not to bump into the furniture. It’s acting, not being.

I’ll freely admit to being more than a little method when it comes to understanding my characters but that only goes as far as I need to to understand. I don’t need to live their lives. That way insanity lies.

But apart from underestimating the writer’s skill and insulting the whole of the female sex with the assumption that our words are not equal to men’s Amanda Craig is guilty of the kind of maternal smugness that generally brings me out in a rash. As women we’re told from a very young age that babies are an integral part of the female experience. As little girls we’re given baby dolls to nurture then when we get older we’re told that we will only be a true success when we have found that illusive balance between being a woman and being a mother. In Ireland in particular, with a booming birth rate, there’s little enough debate about women who might not want to have children. We talk ad nauseum about raising a family and there’s huge sympathy with the one in six who will struggle to start the family but you rarely hear from people of either sex who simply prefer to live their lives child free.

In the spirit of full disclosure I didn’t mean to get to this stage in my life without children but that’s the way it’s happened. I do know the pain of not being able to conceive but ultimately felt that I couldn’t face being reduced to a breeding machine in order to have a child. I was scared by baby dolls when I was little. My imagined perfect life never really had a cradle in it. I never really got on with small children. That might have changed and one day I’d like nothing more than to give a home to a child but it never was and never will be the way I define myself. That perfect future that I dreamed up when I was a kid might not have had a cradle but it did have a desk, with a vase of flowers, a steaming mug of coffee and a typewriter. That hasn’t changed.

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